Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 Flashback: Movies

Well, here we are again. The end of another year. Now that wasn't so bad, was it? OK, it was pretty bad.

But hey, pop culture figured out how to keep itself getting made, so it's time once more for our annual roundup of the best and worst of film, television, music, and more in 2021! I will leave you with the usual warning that this is but an opinion! Me disliking something you like does not make you bad or wrong. I hate mint chocolate chip ice cream, so I'm used to being in the minority. However, I hope I can guide folks to some cool things that the world of entertainment had to offer this year. 

On a personal level, I began to experiment with returning to theaters in July, double-masked and going to afternoon screenings on weekdays to avoid crowds. I'm currently rethinking my strategy in the face of this next phase of the pandemic and pulling back until at least the end of January, so time will tell what next year's Flashback will look like. Everyone's comfort level and personal safety is the priority, so I recommend waiting for any of these films that aren't already on VOD if that's what works best for you.

Thank you for reading, as always, and - to paraphrase one of this year's top memes (which finally made its way down to me, thus indicating it is well and truly over) - I hope this gargantuan annual blog post finds you well.

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2021 Movies I Missed That I Wish I Had Seen Before Compiling This List: 12 Hour Shift, There's Someone Inside Your HouseSaint Maud, Titane, Gunpowder Milkshake, Red Rocket, The King's Man

2021 Movies That I Missed, Don't Regret Missing, and Will Go Out of My Way to Continue Missing Until the End of Linear Time: Red Notice, King Richard, Mortal Kombat, Finch, Joe Bell, Stillwater, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Cry Macho, Army of the Dead, Home Sweet Home Alone

A 2021 Movie That I Turned Off Halfway Through and Thus Doesn't Qualify for This List, Yet Me Doing That Tells You Everything You Need to Know About It: Space Jam: A New Legacy

The Ten Best Films of 2021

#10 Slumber Party Massacre

This movie snuck in under the radar, because even the most hard-nosed horror hounds don't really keep track of SyFy's original content. However, maybe we should. Slumber Party Massacre is far from perfect and its comedic sensibilities don't land well with me, but it's a rather fun subversion of the tropes and structure of the slasher genre. Also, I will adore any film that harnesses the "female gaze" as well as this film in its ruthless, relentless exploitation of male bodies that honors the original film's most ludicrous excesses.

#9 The Vigil

The Vigil, which is a horror movie about an ex-Orthodox Jewish man hired as a Shomer to keep guard over a dead man overnight, is rather packed full of tropes. However, it assembles those tropes in an incredibly effective and spine-tingling manner, freshening them up by the mere fact that this is religious horror where you don't see a crucifix even once. The Jewish tradition will hopefully get more and better horror movies, but for now this one is an excellent - if generic - example of the craft.

#8 Minari

I want to commend this film for giving the Oscars everything they want without sacrificing the warm kindness that suffuses the entire narrative, even when it's at its most bitter and upsetting.

#7 Language Lessons

Language Lessons is doing something I have begged the found footage and/or screen life genre to do for over a decade: not being a horror movie. This story - as told through a record of video chats - of a gay American taking online Spanish lessons from a tutor in Costa Rica, is a rich and emotionally resonant exploration of platonic friendship, something which is almost never properly celebrated in film. Stars Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales, who co-wrote the film with Morales directing, forge a beautiful dynamic that keeps the film constantly feeling fresh despite being tied to a single visual format.

#6 I'm Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch)

It's easy enough to sum up this film (about an academic who participates in a case study that assigns her with a humanoid robot designed to be a perfect partner) as a gender-swapped version of Her. And it pretty much is that, but more German. However, this film lives and dies on the chemistry between leads Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens (who is fluent in German, who the hell knew). Stevens especially is the backbone of the film, delivering an excellent physical performance - certainly the best onscreen android since Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina - that takes the particular set of skills he honed in The Guest and turns them up to 11, which somehow works perfectly for a romantic comedy. At least, a European romantic comedy.

#5 Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas)

While I tend to prefer his melodrama of the 90's to his 2010's output, Pedro Almodóvar has crafted yet another fascinating and beautiful film with Parallel Mothers. It has a bookending narrative that I don't think melds particularly well with the central story, but both are tremendously powerful in their own right and it wouldn't be an Almodóvar film without a little messiness. It's a tremendously confident film from a filmmaker who's almost never not at the top of his craft, blending queerness, Spanish history, and motherhood into an intoxicating cocktail.

#4 Two of Us (Deux)

When I sat down to watch the French film about retirement-age lesbians, I steadied myself for a dour old time at the movies. And yes, there is plenty of harrowing European drama to be had here, whether it's the horror of the loss of one's faculties or the misery that comes with erasure. However, the film has a spark of whimsy that makes it play more like an action thriller than a weepy drama, and it's an outright delight to watch. It's a gripping film anchored by two stunning performances and made with the utmost arthouse care, but it never throws away a sense of popcorn bombast that really has no business being there, yet remains utterly captivating.

#3 The Night House

The Night House has some flaws in its overall premise, or at least it's far too easy to see a type of film it could have been that would be even better. However, it's the single horror film this year that has really sent a tingle up my spine. Rebecca Hall's barn-burner of a performance that brings out the realism of her character's grief by drowning it in spiky edges and bitter sarcasm rather than indulgent melancholy provides a heady cocktail when combined with director David Bruckner's crushing atmosphere and razor-sharp bursts of tension.

#2 Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar is nothing short of a miracle. It's a comedy that is uncompromisingly weird and goofy and stupid, and yet is possessed with boundless kindness and love for every oddball character that struts across the screen. Sure, it's ten minutes or so too long like all modern comedies, but when all those other minutes are providing such a potent cocktail of spy movie pastiche, random musical numbers, middle America satire, and sex positive shenanigans with a solid core of female friendship at the middle, it's hard to begrudge spending a little extra time in this universe.

#1 The Human Voice

I suppose I can't say I "missed" Pedro Almodóvar, considering the past three years have been his most fertile directorial period since the 90's. However, nothing in recent memory has felt as potently Almodóvar as this 30 minute one-woman short film following Tilda Swinton's final phone conversation with her ex, who has just left her (his first film in English, by the way!). This is his most direct adaptation of the Jean Cocteau play La voix humaine, which he has been building elements of into his work since the late 80's. 

He finally comes together with this favorite play of his in an explosion of exquisite production design (the short moves from the most lushly appointed hardware store you've ever seen to an audaciously colorful apartment you could gobble up with a spoon, located in some sort of liminal space film set), and a career-best performance from an actress whose career is basically built from best performances. Now that I've seen Parallel Mothers and am able to compare, I think where this short film excels the most is in the fact that it doesn't need to tie itself to a narrative structure, allowing it to become an abstracted prism of all of Almodóvar's most potent stylistic instincts.

Best 2020 Film I Missed: Breaking Fast

Breaking Fast is one of those indie movies that so effortlessly proves how easy it is to make an intersectional diverse story that it reminds you how much of Hollywood's struggle to properly represent LGBTQ+ people and people of color is just their refusal to actually try. Breaking Fast is an effervescent Ramadan rom-a-com about a Muslim-American having a meet-cute and falling in love with a white American love interest over the course of the holiday, acknowledging the racial realities inherent to that kind of relationship but also refusing to let this light and sweet story become a stolid polemic. I'm desperately sad that I didn't catch this before making my end of the year list for 2020.

The Five Worst Films of 2021

#5 Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin

I won't rag on the fact that it has literally nothing to do with the other Paranormal Activity movies, because that was to be expected. However, you can't just claim to be a part of this universe and ignore the most basic, fundamental rules of found footage cinema. This film is chock full of cheap music stings and, even worse, extra coverage from angles that force you to remember that this is a work of fiction, because they would be impossible for the crew to accomplish with the amount of equipment they have.

#4 Cinderella

It oh so nearly wriggles its way into good-bad territory, though it ends up being dragged into the mud by some treacherously bad jukebox song choices, and insipid original numbers that force star Camila Cabello out of her register, groaning and grunting her way through the melodies as if she's in pain. It's not often that an untested pop star acquits herself better as an actress than a singer in her first motion picture, and that is far from being a compliment. Also, James Corden shows up because for anyone who likes musical comedy he's basically the It Follows monster constantly plodding at your heels.

#3 After We Fell

After the second film briefly brought up the quality by about 1%, the After franchise (which is infamously based on Harry Styles fan fiction) backslid with this epic journey through the arid desert that is the relationship between the bland Tessa and the pure evil Hardin. Every other character is recast due to COVID restrictions, adding a veneer of confusion to a project that doesn't have two plot points to rub together. It just endlessly hammers its single plot point, which is Hardin blowing his top at literally anything Tessa does, says, or thinks. Romantic!

#2 A California Christmas: City Lights

Even by the standards of the Netflix Christmas movie, this reaches cataclysmic heights of empty narrative. Real life bland Christian couple Lauren and Josh Swickard even ditch the bizarrely potent horniness that lent the first film any sort of flavor.

#1 Old

Old is a one-way trip to goof city. It's a fun enough high concept that was never going to have a particularly satisfying ending, but it's everything that comes beforehand that's the problem. M. Night Shyamalan's scriptwriting problems have never been more apparent, and he compounds them with the ugliest camerawork of his career, forcing important visual moments offscreen through a stylistic hailstorm of blurry images and uncomfortably cropped close-ups that end up showing exactly nothing.

Best Worst Movie: Diana the Musical

First of all, yes this fully counts as a movie because the Broadway show's opening was delayed by COVID and this recording of the stage production (filmed with in the actual theater but with no audience) was the first way it was possible to see it, so I consider it eligible. And now it's the only way to see it because the Broadway show closed after 33 performances. This is because it is demonstrably, titanically, vaingloriously bad in nearly every way.

I do think the cast tries their hardest and mostly acquits themselves, especially Jeanna de Waal as Diana, who has a spectacular belt. It's just that the lyrics she belts are among the most ludicrous ever compiled into a single work. Just when you think a particular rhyme is the most garish and depraved combination of words to be found in the English language, the next one goes ahead and tops it. 

Setting aside the fact that this is a real person who they are treating incredibly disrespectfully, Diana propels you on a flume ride through the barest wisps of a plot, assuming you know the whole story and won't mind being ripped from one moment to another across 17 years compressed into a sickening, oily concentrate. As for the dancing? I've seen better choreography improvised by drunk high school students, and there is nothing ironic or sarcastic about that statement. That's just a true story about my life.

Worst 2020 Film I Missed: Mank

If they had turned the lighting down by about two percent, you wouldn't be able to see anything in this movie, and I'd honestly prefer it that way. A desperately uninteresting slog through a truly unhinged Gary Oldman performance that doesn't cohere properly into any sort of recognizable human character.

Best Dramatic Actor: Udo Kier, The Blazing World

The Blazing World, which is essentially a low budget Pan's Labyrinth-infused riff on Alice in Wonderland, is a film I wish I had more patience for than I do. However, whenever longtime character actor Udo Kier is onscreen, his just-the-right-side-of-over-the-top performance provides an uncanny, crushing weight.

Best Comedic Actor: Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Jamie Dornan has had a rougher time shaking off the stigma of starring in Fifty Shades of Grey than Dakota Johnson, but that's also what happens when one of the next projects you make is Wild Mountain Thyme. Here, he gets the chance to lose the self-serious act and just play in the sandbox with two gifted comedic actresses, showing off exactly what sparkling, deadpan hilarious heights he is capable of.

Best Dramatic Actress: Martine Chevallier, Two of Us

This is certainly the movie on my Top 10 list that showcases the most capital A Acting, but Martine Chevallier's performances shines in her quietest moments. Playing a wounded soul trapped inside a body that no longer works the way she needs it to, she delivers rushing torrents of emotion with just the little flicks of her eye.

Best Comedic Actress: Lady Gaga, House of Gucci

Did I choose her because I couldn't decide between Barb or Star? Maybe. But House of Gucci, despite being resolutely un-campy, is massively improved by Lady Gaga's improbable accent that haphazardly slips between "spicy meat-a-ball" Italian and... who even knows? Bulgarian?

Best Dramatic Supporting Actor: Matt Smith, Last Night in Soho

Just for proving that the charismatic Brit has the ability to be fucking mean.

Best Comedic Supporting Actor: Skylar Astin, Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas

Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas was a resounding disappointment, leaning in on all of the show's most goofy flaws. And there's no way any actor could have sold the intensely stupid final scene that tries to explain the cliffhanger of the show's final season with a shrug of "well, that was weird, wasn't it?" However, Astin elevates every other scene he's in, taking an impossible character arc and making it seem almost plausible through sheer charismatic willpower.

Best Dramatic Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Is this the first time my personal tastes have aligned with the Oscars? Let's pretend this never happened. Yet it's impossible to deny the sheer charisma of Yuh-Jung Yoon, taking a stock Oscarbait role and applying the full force of her magnetic, fun personality to it.

Best Comedic Supporting Actress: Vanessa Bayer, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

As the dictatorial leader of Barb and Star's local Talking Club, Vanessa Bayer bubbles over with barely disguised glee at the ludicrously banal cruelty she is able to inflict on others. Every time she appears, she runs away with another chunk of the movie.

Best Cameo: Kyle Richards, Halloween Kills

It's long been a trivia tidbit that the actress who played babysittee Lindsay Wallace in the original Halloween went on to be a Real Housewife. But in this extended cameo, she acquits herself well enough to be memorable in a film that already features Jamie Lee Curtis, Anthony Michael Hall, and Judy Greer. That's no small feat!

Worst Cameo: The Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Forget the inherent grotesquerie of digitally resurrecting poor Harold Ramis for this stupid, stupid sequence, trotting out the original Ghostbusters cast 40 years later is just a grim reminder of how much time has passed rather than a fun nod to a classic film.

Best Post-Credits Scene: The Suicide Squad

I just really love Weasel, OK?

Best Opening Credits: Candyman

The upside-down shots of Chicago buildings seeming to emerge from the fog like trees from the earth are perfectly unnerving, as well as a fun literal mirror of the opening credits of the original film.

Best Score: Halloween Kills

As the kids say, John Carpenter snapped. He and his collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies have turned out yet another score that is significantly better than the movie it's bringing to life, reimagining the classic Michael Myers themes in a way that feels kinetic and dangerous.

Best Soundtrack: Single All the Way

I just really want to give props to a Christmas movie that has somehow found a way to assemble a group of songs that are neither overplayed nor extremely terrible (a goal that Hawkeye continuously failed to reach every single week). That's the gay touch, baby!

Best Original Song: "Hunter's Moon" Ghost, Halloween Kills

Am I goth now? Maybe. I love a propulsive drumline and a soaring chorus, so there you go.

Worst Original Song: "Million to One" Camila Cabello, Cinderella

Why did Camila Cabello write this for herself when it's not in her range? Somebody tell me.

Best Musical Sequence: "White Woman's Instagram" Bo Burnham: Inside

Not only is this an incredibly fun parody of the inanities of social media, it's got that breakdown in the middle where things get alarmingly real and the camera pulls out from an Instagram square frame to widescreen and back again as she readjusts back to feigning happiness for her followers. Just truly excellent aesthetic all the way through.

Worst Musical Sequence: "Whatta Man / Seven Nation Army" Cinderella

I want you to know how vile this scene is by reminding you that I could have picked anything from Diana the Musical or the Bollywood dance sequence from Eternals, which completely misunderstands what makes Bollywood fun. However, Cinderella just keeps vomiting up mysteries that will eternally haunt me. What compelled anyone to mash up these two particular songs, I'll never know. What I do know is that they neither make sense in context nor out. However, what grinds my gears the most about this abomination is the way that the tempos so conspicuously fail to gel.

Best Musical Sequence That Briefly Redeemed a Terrible Movie: "Sincerely, Me" Dear Evan Hansen

The scene where Evan Hansen and his barely-there friend are editing a series of fake emails that they will pretend were written by his crush's deceased brother (this plot is whack, no two ways about it) brings the film to life for a brutally short couple minutes. The way the sequence has the brother directly addressing the camera while continuously restarting as they change details is actually fun, something that Dear Evan Hansen resolutely refuses to be otherwise.

Best Monster: Funeral Home Zombie, V/H/S/94

I couldn't find a picture of the actual creature, but perhaps that's for the best. This particular segment is an excellent short packed with gloomy atmosphere and closing on a truly great reveal.

Worst Monster: Pig, Spiral: From the Book of Saw

Again, not to be the "boo hoo, don't change my franchise" guy, but why on Earth did they think this goofy-ass marionette pig was worth spending time with over Billy the puppet?

Biggest Laugh: Dun Dunbar, A Castle for Christmas

Netflix Christmas movies seem to be having an intramural competition to find the silliest thing they can get established actors to say out loud repeatedly. Naming the titular castle "Dun Dunbar" and constantly having that phrase come tumbling out of the mouths of Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes certainly takes the fruitcake.

Biggest Cry:  Illness, Two of Us

I wasn't kidding when I called this film a delight. But it's still fucking hard when Madeleine's illness strikes, preventing her from moving out of the city with her lover, as they have planned for over a decade.

Biggest Scream: The Stereo, The Night House

No spoilers! This image isn't even from that scene. It's real good though. Despite the fact that you know without a doubt that a scare is coming, it still gets ya anyway.

Biggest Squirm: The Bread Slicer, Fear Street Part One: 1994

If this excellently brutal moment was the only thing worth watching about the Fear Street trilogy (which it isn't), sitting through all 5 hours would still be worth it.

Biggest Thirst: The Pillow Fight, Slumber Party Massacre

Remember when I mentioned the female gaze earlier? Well, it was about time cinema delivered a gender-swapped slumber party where hot dudes take off their tops and hit each other with pillows that are conspicuously unable to retain their feathers, no?

Best Title: Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar

Gotta love an internal rhyme that also actively encourages the person saying it out loud to recite it in the accents of the characters in the movie.

Worst Title: Needle in a Timestack

I mean... Do I even need to say anything?

Best Line: "Remember, don't keep the steering wheel too straight. Lots of tiny movements left and right." Sharon Gordon Fisherman, Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar

This is the villainous Sharon's advice to her child lackey Yo-Yo, and in one fell swoop it eviscerates decades of my favorite bad cinema trope: actors constantly turning the prop steering wheel left and right even though the rear projection/greenscreen/etc. shows the car going down the road in a straight line.

Worst Line: "There are a handful of people in the world who could make that swim, and you're not two of them." James, The Vault

This is the single line in the international heist film that most reeks of "a Spanish person wrote this and didn't ask anyone to check up on the translation."

Best Dialogue: He's All That

Cam: "What's in the bag?"
Brin: "Formal wear, or the closest thing I could find to it in your closet. Dude, it's a disaster in there. Why are there so many Skittles on the floor?"
Cam: "Because I spilled some Skittles."

The single line in the film that actually achieves the film's ostensible goal of being funny. It's so underplayed and out of left field, underscoring a perfectly "teenage boy" sort of worldview.

Best Poster: Malignant

Poppy colors! A double face design that captures the overall plot and tone of the movie while also being pretty cool to look at! No complaints here.

Worst Poster: Dear Evan Hansen

So much useless negative space. And also it gives you literally no sense of what the movie could possibly be about.
Top Five Movie Discoveries

#5 Waiting for Guffman (1996)

My boyfriend Ben and I had ourselves a little Christopher Guest marathon this year, and the first improv mockumentary he made - following a small town theater troupe putting on a play about the town's history - is certainly the kind of raucous gem that would lead producers to go "fuck yeah, you can make a movie about a dog show next, why not?"

#4 Love Me, Fear Me (2018)

This stop-motion short film is both a dazzling display of visual creativity and a chilling expression of the constant pressure to please others and the toll it takes on the psyche.

#3 Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing it, Toho was shoving all of their giant monsters into the same movie. Later films would prove that this isn't always a recipe for success, but this jam-packed outing that includes Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and as many B-tier kaiju as possible is an absolute gung-ho delight.

#2 Yellow Submarine (1968)

I was a rabid Beatles fan in high school, so I'm shocked I never got around to seeing this back in the day. I'm glad I waited though, because this ostensible children's film needs to be witnessed with adult eyes. It's an astounding pop art vision that feels like your eyeballs are being electrocuted with pure creativity.

#1 Evil Under the Sun (1982)

I've been reading a great deal of Agatha Christie throughout the year (more on that later), but this is the only adaptation of her work that I've seen which actively improves on the source material. It maintains the core that makes her work so fun to read while improving the location and characters, tightening up the clues and the mystery plot in the process. Also it features a young Maggie Smith parading around in some of the most audaciously colorful costumes ever sewn, so this landed high on my list instantly.

2021 Crush: David Alvarez, West Side Story

Ariana DeBose doesn't deserve a Best Supporting Actress nomination, because it's the easiest thing in the world to pretend you're dating Bernardo. Hell, I'm doing it right now. 
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